Music as Artifact: Introducing BCWax

As I sit here reading over the specs of the new iPhone Jumbo, and look at the guy next to me gazing deeply into his Kindle, I can’t help but wonder whether Steve and Jeff’s ultimate vision for my living room isn’t a padded white cell filled with clear goo, with me suspended in the center, slowly poking at a sleek, silver tablet that dispenses entertainment, oxygen and waste management services. I have some vague concerns about the jacking-in process, but what really bothers me about such a future is this: what happens when my friends come over? Or my kids get a little older? How will they know what books and music are important to me, not just at the moment of my last Facebook update, but in my life up until now? Apple’s solution is likely to be a stunning, incredible, truly revolutionary user interface that looks kinda like the opening credits to Star Wars, from which you can fly through space and time, all the way back to June 19th, 2007, when dad’s Playlist-on-the-Go™ briefly included “Lip Gloss” and the eBook at the top of his Wish List was If I Did It (three year AT&T MobileGoo contract for friend/kid not included). I don’t think I’m just being a crotchety Luddite when I say:

The fact is, if you want to get a quick sense of what a person is about, you can’t beat walking into their house and spending a few moments browsing their living room shelves. The best stuff, like say, Edward Tufte’s 12-color-printed, foldouts-galore Visual Explanations, or Moldover’s circuit board instrument CD, or Cheech and Chong’s rolling-paper-included Big Bambu, always yearns to be picked up and examined, and I think, points to a basic human desire to interact with physical objects. Holding them can feel good, and a talented designer can arrange their atoms in all sorts of pleasing ways that are impossible to achieve with bits alone. Not that we should all erase our hard drives, chuck our routers out the window and replace our iTunes libraries with vinyl. But for the music and books that are really important to us, possessing our own physical versions of those works allows us to express who we are. And when those physical versions are well-made, when they are true artifacts, owning them becomes a source of joy.

This belief in the fundamental value of physical goods recently led us to enable artists to sell merchandise side-by-side with digital music on Bandcamp. Of course, it’s one thing to talk about the importance of offering a physical product to your fans. It’s an entirely different thing to actually do it. And so, in the grand tradition of eating your own dog food, we picked two great, independent artists on Bandcamp who already had strong digital sales but no physical offering, we produced physical packages for both of them, and starting today, we’re selling the first of these packages under our newly-formed unlabel, BCWax (more on its un-ness later). You can listen to and buy it right here.

Besides dogfooding, our other big motive for creating BCWax is to demonstrate what we feel is the right way to make physical goods, and hopefully encourage some artists to emulate our methods. Too many bands nowadays seem to go about the production of their merch with the sole objective of fulfilling fans’ perceived format preferences, and end up with lackluster products that offer no advantages over a download. It’s an unfortunate mindset (fueled by the rise in print-on-demand services) which in our opinion entirely misses the point. Yes, the world still contains a few people who want their music on CD or vinyl simply because it’s CD or vinyl. However, we’re fast approaching the point at which the convenience of digital files is preferred by everyone, and in order to sell, the physical version must offer something the digital does not. It must somehow be made into an object that every one of your fans has to own, has to hold while they listen to your music, and has to show to all of their friends. It must be transformed from a disposable good into something your fans will fetishize.

BCWax’s first release, Love.Life.Ukulele. by Sophie Madeleine, is just such an object. We hope you’ll check it out because above all, it’s wonderful music, but we also hope you’ll take a deeper look because this limited-edition physical package, which includes a killer silkscreened print, mind-bendingly beautiful LP, and high-quality digital download, is a meticulously produced work of affordable art:

A few words about what makes the package so special (best read while listening to it for free or with one eye on Sophie singing the first track, “Take Your Love With Me”:

  • This release, like all BCWax releases to come, was designed by Dan Stiles, the force behind striking poster art for Sonic Youth, Arctic Monkeys, Death Cab for Cutie, and Feist, to name but a very few. In the 1950s and 60s, Reid Miles and Francis Wolff created a series of iconic album covers for Blue Note Records, pieces which were themselves gorgeous and unique, yet clearly part of a whole. Fans were driven to collect them all, and ended up exposed to music they might otherwise have never explored. We aspire to this same lofty goal, and think you’ll agree that Dan (who we stumbled upon at last year’s South by Southwest Flatstock show, standing way out from the hordes) is the perfect man for the job.
  • The print is not simply a reproduction of the cover art. It’s silkscreened, uses an overprint technique that gives it a sense of depth and texture, includes a silver ink not present on the record jacket, is printed onto sumptuous, 100% recycled French Speckletone paper, and is signed and numbered by Dan. You will want to frame it, and you’ll be free to do so without any do-I-hang-this-jacket-on-my-wall-or-do-I-leave-it-on-my-shelf angst.
  • The LP is truly something to behold. Yes, it’s an LP. As in a record. As in vinyl. Not because it sounds better (though it often does), but because of all it allows from a design perspective. A size that allows you to appreciate, not squint at, the cover art. Full lyrics and liner notes right on the sleeve. A die-cut that lets you peek right into the label graphics. And a candy apple red disc that begs to be ogled, handled, and spun around and around.
  • This is an enduring object. The sleeve and jacket are printed onto heavy and even heavier paper stocks (respectively), so the tearing and edge splitting common to lousy vinyl production is not present here. The record itself is pressed onto super heavyweight (200 gram) virgin vinyl, which we chose not for audiophile reasons (though some say a heavier record sounds better), but because of the sense of permanence and quality that a stiffer, heavier disc conveys. When you hold it in your hands, you immediately feel that it’s worthy of the music it contains.
  • There are only 500 copies. In an age of infinitely replicable digital goods, part of the attraction of physical items is the knowledge that only a very limited number exist in the world. It’s just more fun to own number 37 of 500 than to own that thing that anyone can get by clicking a link.
  • The record sounds terrific. This isn’t a lazy direct transfer of the CD. The tracks were remastered specifically for vinyl, and the record went through multiple test pressings to get the sound just right.
  • The digital music files are included. The fact that 99% of the CDs and LPs for sale today don’t come with downloads is beyond comprehension. BCWax records always include the downloads, and in just about whatever format you could possibly want: 320k mp3, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, Apple Lossless, AAC high/low, or mp3 VBR high/low.

That’s the sort of package I want to buy from all my favorite bands. And really, there’s very little stopping them (or you) from offering it to me. Our biggest expense in putting this together has been time, not money. Time finding a great place to silkscreen the prints (like D&L Screenprinting). Time finding a great place to press the records and print the jackets (like Pirates Press). Time finding a great mastering facility (like Mr. Toads). Time finding a great fulfillment house (like…well, it’s the topic of an upcoming post). And time finding a great designer (that one’s up to you, but starting here worked for us). Now please consider thanking us for all the time we just saved you by grabbing BCWax01 before it’s gone, and then making something brilliant, putting it up for sale on Bandcamp, and telling us about it!

So, we’re launching BCWax because a) we believe in the eternal power of physical goods to delight, and to act as a legacy and means of self-expression for their owner, b) we believe software gets better when the people building it actively use it, and c) we want to demonstrate to others the kinds of goods we ourselves would like to buy. But there’s one final reason we’re doing this, and that’s to test out a different kind of model for a record label.

For BCWax, A&R consists of browsing through aggregate system stats, seeing which bands are exhibiting the early signs of success, giving them a listen, and discovering favorites. Production and manufacturing consists of taking an already excellent recording and coordinating the production of an awesome physical package around it. Distribution is Bandcamp itself. And the record “deal” is nothing more than a co-marketing agreement, where we recoup our manufacturing costs and then share the profits with the artist (but take no ownership rights in the music). It’s a model that diverges enough from a traditional label role that it seems wrong to even call it a label. “Unlabel” maybe? Yeah, OK, maybe not.

We hope you’ll collect BCWax releases because first and foremost, they’re great albums and great physical packages. But we also hope you’ll pick them up because you believe in a world where motivated, independent artists can make a living selling directly to their fans, with little outside help. Thank you, get Sophie’s record right here, and watch this space for BCWax02.

P.S. Bandcamp blog readers may enter the discount code “damn” at checkout to receive 15% off BCWax01. As in, Damn, we can’t believe you read this far.

P.P.S. Discount code? What? Yep, we’ve just launched discount codes in support of this release, as well as a merch management table and fulfillment partner accounts. Enjoy!

76 thoughts on “Music as Artifact: Introducing BCWax

  1. Pingback: toni.org
  2. I’m currently doing an experiment where I’ve given up digital music (iTunes, etc) for the exact same reasons you’re mentioning here: physicality, reverence, permanence, BIGNESS. I can’t wait to see what you guys do next.

    I would say that an option for those who DO just want the record would be nice. The print is gorgeous, but I’d be much more inclined to get the release at 20-25 sans print. That being said, this seems to be tailor made for me and my little project, so I’m in for one.

    I’ll be sure and write about it at the blog about all this: yearofrecord.com.

  3. I was a little worried when you said “Label” and that meant offering artists a boilerplate deal. My fears were put at ease when this paragraph arrived:

    For BCWax, A&R consists of browsing through aggregate system stats, seeing which bands are exhibiting the early signs of success, giving them a listen, and discovering favorites. Production and manufacturing consists of taking an already excellent recording and coordinating the production of an awesome physical package around it. Distribution is Bandcamp itself. And the record “deal” is nothing more than a co-marketing agreement, where we recoup our manufacturing costs and then share the profits with the artist (but take no ownership rights in the music). It’s a model that diverges enough from a traditional label role that it seems wrong to even call it a label. “Unlabel” maybe? Yeah, OK, maybe not.

    Glad to see that you’re not going to take advantage of the artist! How you guys make money is beyond me, because if my belief in god weren’t rooted in naturalistic pantheism, I’d believe you guys were angels from heaven!

  4. this is great. The funny thing is as I’m reading this I’m thinking I would love to have this from my favorite artist but I doubt I would want to pay the price. Then I clicked through and saw it was only $30 which I would pay without thought for a band I love. thanks!

  5. Bang on the money again..it’s a natural shift. If digimusic is seen as ubiquitous and less valuable, then create an artifact that Is rare..people should demand quality for their Buck, not just accept shite

  6. “damn”, forgot to enter the discount code at checkout. Ah well, the money goes to a worthy cause, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

    Congratulations on a great first offering! May many follow.

    1. Hey there Coen, we’re pretty much making this up as we go. For the first two releases, we looked for independents on Bandcamp with strong digital sales but no physical offering, and picked the two albums we liked the most. For future releases, we may do more of the same, or who knows, maybe there’s a band with a strong sales history outside of Bandcamp who wants to try something new with their next release? What’s a little less likely, at least until we see how things go, is that we’ll do a record from an artist without a sales history on or off the site, even if we absolutely love the music. Not saying that applies to you, but if it does, don’t wait for us! Go with some of the places suggested above and release it yourself!

  7. love you

    love you

    love you

    good work fellas

    have a look at paperfoam who do the awesome ecopacks i use for my cds – they come out a treat too and fans love them

    x

  8. ethan: you had me at “music as artifact.” glad to see so many cool things coming to fruition at BC.

    just purchased my copy of BCWax01 because a) you can never have too much vinyl; and b) sophie had me at “oh i…”

    i still owe you a reciprocal meal at dolores park café.

  9. This is brilliant. Simply brilliant. And I think the idea of an “Unlabel” is actually a perfect business model for these times.

    I just did my second album following nearly the exact the same criteria – a vinyl release using the new Gotta Groove press, separate vinyl master, amazing cover art, initially limited to 100, financed via Kickstarter (the invite code for which I got from this blog!), and sold on Bandcamp. I don’t think I qualify for your A&R criteria, but if you’re interested in a re-press (cheap, as Gotta Groove keeps its stamps), let me know. I hope to repress soon anyway…

    Also, way to go with the discount codes!! I plan on using those frequently.

    All in all, each of these improvements is wonderful and completely in line with Bandcamp’s trajectory of continued amazing offerings.

  10. Many many thanks guys, really appreciate all the support! Gordon, Gotta Groove looks awesome. Insane and wonderful that there’s a new vinyl plant, and in the Big C too!

    1. Jason! Next time you’re near Berkeley you have to go to The Soundwell. Their website (thesoundwell.com) is straight outta Geocities 1998, but they’re the best. They masterly refurbish old turntables, trot them out on Saturday mornings (and only Saturday mornings) and sell them for between $100 and $200 on average. I’ve bought a few Duals from them over the years that sound just as great as any $500 Technics. And you’ll have something much better than the ability to go wicky wicky, and that is of course FAUX WOOD GRAIN.

  11. That is genius beyond, as is everything bandcamp. A digital platform fighting the vinylfight? And I can already see it: BCWax becoming one of the most powerful record (un)labels in the world, eating up old models, majors and big indies alike. Smartest thing I’ve read this year so far!

  12. This is the same concept I utilized when I created the special limited edition release of my “Synaesthesia” music. Online it has gotten millions of downloads and streams since 2005, and “offline” I decided to make a very limited release with nice materials. no crappy jewel cases, etc. I’m finding that fans really do like CD’s and they are not dead. People are proud of their collections at home, still. They want to support the artists directly. Apple is completely wrong and the industry is wrong to assume that CD’s and Vinyl are irrelevant. Long live physical media. 🙂

  13. Great job guys. This is how I like to see music being distributed.

    Combining the great looks and taste of a vinyl, and the convenience of a digital download. Everyone happy!

    All the best,
    Aram
    Amsterdam, The Netherlands

  14. and not just packaging, but adding extra/exclusive tracks to the physical, even an added 45 single helps to incentivize people to buy physical versions of music.

  15. “But there’s one final reason we’re doing this, and that’s to test out a different kind of model for a record label.”

    Best of luck! You guys seem to understand music in the Internet age much better than most.

  16. I think you guys are tapping into a growing desire. Just in the past few weeks I’ve had a number of conversations with other bands wondering how to create a physical product that people will want to buy instead of download. Hopefully a lot of interesting ideas and designs will come from this. Also, good on you for the “unlabel” idea.

  17. Another in a long line of excellent ideas, and very timely (as inspiration) as I’m in the process of looking to get a very limited number of 7″s pressed, and mostly for the reasons you state. Spooky!

    Best of luck with BCW,
    Implo

  18. Great
    it is amazing to see how you support the music.

    first i want to send you my album 🙂
    for your own enjoy
    keep this great work you are doing
    it is amazing
    this is the reason artists still making music
    cheers

  19. I’d love to see nothing more than small independent musicians releasing 500 press limited runs of albums.

    It’s my idea of heaven, I think the whole value added in music is where the market needs to go.

    Digital downloads cheapen the value proposition for customers, for some reason physical product that goes with the digital adds that value back into music.

    I do however wish it was easier for independent artists, that the risk was not so high to the starving artist. $2000 up front and then the terror of having 500 vinyl lp’s to offload to cover costs will dissuade many, it really is a shame that vinyl on demand technology never came, and the demand died before it could. I can only hope that one day pressing vinyl can be as easy as publishing a book printed on demand. So that the effort and cost is in the production of the media not in the creation of the format.

    I ordered your first pressing, I look forward to it, and if it’s as awesome as I think it will be I will star saving with the aim to do the same in 2010 for one of my own releases.

    Long live analog!

  20. This is awesome! You are all definitely at one with the zeitgeist! I am so thrilled to hear that BandCamp is doing this.

    I have a question: What’s a co-marketing agreement?

    You all wrote “the record ‘deal’ is nothing more than a co-marketing agreement, where we recoup our manufacturing costs and then share the profits with the artist.”

    That sounds pretty good.

    Once the manufacturing costs are recouped, what is Bandcamp doing to earn their split of the profits? Not trying to be buzz killer here. Just wondering. Will band camp be providing promotional services? What kind of marketing is involved?

    I ask all this because I have a new record that I am shopping to labels now. I will release it myself like I did my last two, should no label be interested. So, I’m doing my homework now about manufacturing costs. If I end up releasing it myself, I want to press LPs and have download codes.

    I agree the physical product must be something special for people to want to buy it. And, vinyl is beautiful. CDs not so much. To me.

    I just recently signed up with bandcamp, getting my my back catalogue on your site. I love Bandcamp.

    Thanks,
    Reuben.

    1. Hi Reuben, the co-marketing agreement is just a contract that says both the artist and Bandcamp promote the release to our respective audiences. So we both do blog posts, tweets, Facebook updates, mailing list blasts, and split up the job of reaching out to all the places that have sent the artist traffic in the past (which we discover through the Buzz section of the stats page — in Sophie’s case this included Boing Boing, for example).

  21. This place is great, i want to thank Sophie, ’cause it’s through her i’ve found this place. Everything i ever wanted but never saw from a band-site is here; simplicity, no ads, all the media formats etc. Great job!

    Now a few things about your unlabel. I don’t really like the term, mainly because it’s already a respected indie label (http://www.unlabel.net). I don’t know if you’d (have to) care about that, but keep it in mind. 😉

    Also, why only vinyl, and no CD’s? They’d have to be limited also and with just the same care and quality of artwork ofcource.

    Well, that’s it. Btw, love your FAQ’s.

  22. I agree the physical product must be something special for people to want to buy it.
    I think cd is not much.
    Regards.

  23. this is a wonderful idea – and i don’t even own a record player! its great to see a this kind of investment by bandcamp in its artists and in physical distribution (which artists do so often overlook – for reasons of cost as well as any others). Sail on!

  24. I actually have been replacing my iTunes library with vinyl in recent months and find it much more enjoyable. I really admire what you guys do. If there are any copies of this left by next Wednesday when I get my paycheck, I will most definitely be buying one. You guys are building something here that musicians like me dream of and it is beautiful. Thank you.

  25. OMG this is awesome!! Can’t wait to see what LPs you guys release next.

    If an artist isn’t selling digital music on Bandcamp but that artist has high download numbers, does that artist qualify for BCWax? Just wondering…I give away everything free so I’m hoping I can still be eligible for this excellent program you have going.

    Peace+Love+Music
    Dexter

  26. If one were to choose to sell vinyl on Bandcamp by directly handling the outsourcing of the analog mastering and pressing ourselves rather than indirectly have BCWax handle them as a middleman (not that there’s any problem with that), can an offer for complimentary digital downloads with the purchase of vinyl still be done?

  27. I love what you’re doing here. But like the books that lined our walls years ago, I am happy to have eliminated CDs from the shelves. The books we gave to the local library. The CDs are boxed downstairs as backups.

    I digitized my CD collection for a number of reasons.

    First, access and re-discovery. I have enjoyed finding songs, artists and sounds that simply get lost when you have a large collection. It helps me break out of the lazy habits of rotating just that little pile next to the player. Random shuffle, dynamic playlists, genre lists, and instant access to anything on the fly extends the value of a music collection.

    Second, “stuff” takes up space and resources that I think can be better used. I do like browsing someone’s bookshelves, but conversation is pretty nice, too.

    Third, lyrics, artwork and credits have disappeared from CDs, and now I get them all digitally. I miss the 12″ for these reasons, but portability has saved my life and I can’t look back, especially with uncompressed formats becoming the norm.

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